oregon bach festival

Oregon Bach Festival review: Bach to the future

Festival‘s return to its original performance space provides a welcome reminder of past glories

By BRUCE BROWNE 

The walls of Beall Hall on the University of Oregon campus have absorbed a great deal of beautiful sounds for almost ninety years. Walking into the Mira Frohnmayer Music Building and into this grand dame of venues the other night was as comforting as ever, like putting on those comfy old slippers and settling back with a snifter of calvados. We were there for an old friend – J.S. Bach that is – and his epic St. Matthew Passion, the opening concert of the 2017 Oregon Bach Festival.

Beall is the choice of halls — and Halls — this year for the season’s Bach St. Matthew Passion, the Berwick Academy concerts, the [Re]Discover education series and the Howells Requiem/Taverner Protecting Veil concert. OBF forces will also perform three times in the Silva Concert Hall in Eugene’s Hult Center, offering there the Stangeland Youth Choral Academy concert, Handel’s Hercules and the season closer Missa Solemnis by Beethoven.

The 2017 Oregon Bach Festival opened with an unsurprising work, Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion,’ and a surprise conductor. Photo: Athena Delene.

The choice of Matthew Halls as artistic director in 2011 brought great change to the Oregon Bach Festival: “an exciting new chapter in the festival history” was the statement from then president and general director John Evans. Now in his fourth year of artistic leadership, Halls prepared the OBF Festival Orchestra and Chorus, soloists and Pacific Boychoir for his first Oregon Bach Festival St. Matthew Passion. 

Another first, however, this one for the Halls family, brought about a change of plans. A son was born to conductor Halls and his wife (congratulations all) and the baton passed to Scott Allen Jarrett, director of music at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel and director of the Vocal Fellows program and chorus master for the Festival.

Scott Allen Jarrett conducted J.S. Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion.’

Standby conductors are kept in the wings for these necessities. “Everything was covered, because we knew going in that Hall’s wife would be giving birth around this time,” emeritus founding festival director Royce Saltzman said. Nevertheless, Mr. Jarrett had only four rehearsals with the entire ensemble. For a Bach cantata or even a Mozart Requiem, this would be enough, but for the heavyweight St. Matthew, weighing in at three hours, it is barely enough for most mortals. Yet Mr. Jarrett pulled it off with panache, and a calm demeanor of authority.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: hail & farewell

Dance and dancers on the move, jazz in Cathedral Park, women composers, taiko and Bach, Mozart's spicy little sex opera

Last Thursday at Lincoln Performance Hall, the line to pick up tickets for Éowyn Emerald & Dancers’ performance ran across the lobby, down a partial stairwell and up the other side, like a restless snake shifting and stretching in the midday sun. Eventually the crowd slithered into the theater’s 450-plus seats, packing the place with people eager to see the company’s final show of contemporary dance in Portland and give it one last cheer before Emerald & Co. move to Scotland, where they’ve scored enthusiastically reviewed successes during two recent appearances at the annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Emerald, on top of the world in Edinburgh for the 2014 Fringe Festival.

As it happens, the first piece I wrote for ArtsWatch, back in January 2012, was about Emerald’s first show in town as a choreographer, at BodyVox, where she’d been dancing with BodyVox-2. Now here I was again, with a lot of other people, to witness her farewell gig in town. An eagerness bubbled in the crowd, a sense that a fresh contemporary voice was moving on to new things, and ought not be let to slip away without a warm farewell.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: pop bang boom

Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and freedom of the press; Gore Vidal's visitor from outer space; Shakespeare in the parks; music fests

It’s the Fourth of July, by general agreement the 241st birthday of the great American Experiment, although some might date the nation’s existence from the ratification on March 1, 1781, of the weak and short-lived Articles of Confederation, which declared a central government while reserving most authority to the independent states; or the signing of the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783, which ended the Revolutionary War; or the creation of the U.S. Constitution on September 17, 1787, or its ratification on June 21, 1788, or its effective date of March 4, 1789. Others might argue for something earlier and more gradual, dating to the establishments of the various colonies far from the British throne, a situation that gave rise to a sort of natural independence long before any official break. And many point out that the “new” continents and islands of the Americas contained thriving civilizations long before the permanent arrival of Europeans in 1492, and that the descendants of those civilizations justifiably might have radically differing points of view on what precisely the American Experiment means.

“A VIEW of the FIRE-WORKES and ILLUMINATIONS at his GRACE the Duke of RICHMOND’S at WHITEHALL and on the River Thames on Monday 15 May 1749. Performed by the direction of Charles Fredrick Esq.,” hand-colored etching, 1749, artist unknown.

Right now the Experiment, launched on the principles of an Age of Reason that seems to be slipping from our grasp, feels waist-deep in troubled waters. The First Amendment to the Constitution, which among other things guarantees the freedoms of speech and the press on which organizations such as Oregon ArtsWatch rely, is under strenuous attack from the center of the government that is supposed to be protecting them. The history of the Second Amendment is being so magnified and radically reinterpreted that you’d almost swear Moses had hauled it down from the mountaintop engraved in smoking Day-Glo lettering by an open-carrying Lord High Almighty Himself.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: making it work

You can help us keep the engine running; summer music festivals, "Cabaret" and "The Addams Family," "Baskerville" and more

We have a lot on our minds here at ArtsWatch this week, from the kickoff of the Chamber Music Northwest season to free ballet in the park to a chorus line of Broadway musicals. We’ll get to all of that, and more.

But first, we want to talk about something basic.

ArtsWatch has been here when you’ve needed coverage. Now we ask you to support our important work. Unlike many media outlets, we don’t operate behind a paywall. Everything we publish is freely available to you and anyone who wants to read it. That means we’re in a partnership with our readers, and to continue to grow and thrive we need your support.
It’s especially key right now, as coverage of the fine and performing arts in other media continues to drop dramatically. ArtsWatch has become the leading source for substantial, informed arts news that you don’t find anywhere else.
 If you’re an arts organization, you count on us to get your word out. If you’re a devoted follower of the arts, you count on us to know what’s going on. You count on us to begin and continue compelling conversations. ArtsWatch can’t continue to do that without your contributions.
ArtsWatch is a crucial part of the arts ecosystem in the community. You rely on ArtsWatch to provide vital feedback, smart and substantive coverage, validation for grants, marketing gold in quotes and links, and a way to keep yourselves and your audiences engaged and educated.
Now we ask for your help.
How can you support us? It’s simple.
  • Make a donation. Click this link to pay online or send us a check.
  • Buy an ad and promote your good work. Contact Laura Grimes at laura@orartswatch.org.
  • Give us a shout-out on social media, in your newsletters, and at your events.
EVERY donation and ad sponsorship goes to pay writers and editors for their professional time and effort. ArtsWatch is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization, and you may be able to deduct your charitable contribution from your taxes.
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to cover the vibrant arts community in Portland and throughout Oregon. Everyone at ArtsWatch is deeply grateful for all our readers and supporters.

 

With heartfelt thanks,

Barry Johnson
Bob Hicks
Brett Campbell
Laura Grimes
and all of our talented freelance writers

 


 

Oregon Ballet Theatre dancer Xuan Cheng in rehearsal for Giaconda Barbuto’s new work in “Choreography XX” at the Washington Park Rose Garden Amphitheater Thursday and Friday. Photo: Yi Yin

 

WHAT’S COMING UP THIS WEEK:

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Sweet Lou

A Lou Harrison celebration, invasion of the theater hatchers, Jewish museum's new home, shrinking Bach Fest, more

It’s been a busy seven days in Portland and Oregon, with all sorts of notable cultural events going on. The Astoria Music Festival, after an opening recital Sunday by Metropolitan Opera star and Northwest favorite (she grew up in Centralia, Wash.) Angela Meade, is in full swing. Portland Opera continues its latest foray into musical-theater waters with Man of La Mancha (two more performances, Thursday and Saturday in Keller Auditorium).

Among the past week’s many other highlights:

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Detail from Russian artist Grisha Bruskin’s tapestry series “ALEFBET: The Alphabet of Memory,” opening exhibit of the Oregon Jewish Museum in its new home. Photo: Oregon ArtsWatch

JEWISH MUSEUM’S BIG MOVE. The Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education opened its doors in its new, much bigger, home in a prime gallery row location, the former space of the late lamented Museum of Contemporary Craft. Its new home opens up fresh possibilities for OJMCHE. You can read our take: A bigger, bolder Jewish Museum.

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The Shrinking Oregon Bach Festival

Declining ticket sales and choices accompany University of Oregon festival's shift in focus and leadership

by TOM MANOFF

Editor’s note: this post has been updated to reflect corrections provided by the Oregon Bach Festival. ArtsWatch invited the festival to respond to the story when it was published and will publish a response if provided.

JUDGING by its 2017 program, the Oregon Bach Festival has made substantial cutbacks in programing in the post-Helmuth Rilling era. The German conductor, who co-founded the festival with the University of Oregon’s Royce Saltzman in 1971, retired in 2013. He was succeeded by the highly regarded conductor Matthew Halls.

The most pressing concerns are a decline in ticket sales, a reduction in the number of performances at the city’s major concert venue, and a substantial cut in the number of performances by professional musicians. It’s hard to know which of these developments are cause and which are effect. But either way, this year’s scaled-back schedule offers fewer choices for patrons and also raises questions about the festival’s future.

Matthew Halls conducted Brahms’s ‘A German Requiem’ at the 2016 Oregon Bach Festival. Photo: Josh Green.

The festival has faced some dire financial situations over the years according to former executive John Evans (2007–2014). Evans, who died last year, had the festival mostly in the black during his leadership, but saw the downturn coming. In a report first made public by Eugene arts journalist Bob Keefer, Evans suggested that Rilling’s retirement was a core reason:

Oregon Bach Festival Director Emeritus Helmuth Rilling. Photo: Michael Latz/ Interationale Bachakademie.

“Helmuth Rilling wasn’t the only individual who retired in 2013, so too did many of his most loyal and passionate supporters,” Evans wrote. “And the donor, corporate, foundation, audience, and ticket revenue figures bear this out.”

During the transition from Rilling to Halls, OBF paid ticket sales dropped by 21 percent: 2011 had 14,502; 2014 counted 11,360. Overall attendance dropped by over 50 percent : 2011 had 44,148; 2014 had approximately 20,000. Attendance last year remained at 20,000. 

While Halls’s musical leadership is one component in reviving the festival, important decisions are also now made by Janelle McCoy, the executive director who came to the festival in 2015. McCoy inherited a festival already in the midst of audience and funding decline, and her decisions  will play a central role in the festival’s future. However, McCoy seems relatively inexperienced for OBF, an internationally-known festival with a budget of approximately 2.8 million. After all, she replaced John Evans, who was music director of the BBC, a world expert on Benjamin Britten, and, like his predecessor Saltzman, an acute judge of talent with extensive connections within the classical music world.

Oregon Bach Festival artistic director Matthew Halls and former executive director John Evans.

This year, McCoy has cut back concerts by professional musicians by half — a questionable strategy, considering the opportunities for many additional concerts at reasonable costs. Changes of venue also reflect OBF’s efforts to downsize the festival, apparent from this year’s opening night.

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When Oregon met Arvo

With help from composer Arvo Pärt, Royce Saltzman wanted the 1994 Oregon Bach Festival to be his grand finale. It was nearly a disaster.

Editor’s note: From Feb. 5-12, Portland choir Cappella Romana presents Portland’s Arvo Pärt Festival honoring the world’s most performed living composer. The festival includes a chamber music concert by Third Angle New Music, several choral concerts by Cappella Romana, a film biography that airs this coming Sunday, February 5, and more. ArtsWatch is running a series of stories about the 81-year-old Estonian legend, beginning with a story by University of Oregon student Justin Graff, recounting his encounter with Pärt in Estonia and continuing with this story, originally published in Oregon Quarterly, about the Oregon Bach Festival’s commission of a new work from Pärt in 1994. Details on the festival events follow.

As Royce Saltzman boarded the plane that would take him to Berlin, he couldn’t help feeling anxious. Saltzman, executive director of the Oregon Bach Festival for a quarter century, had devoted his life to music. As a singer, his instrument had been his voice; as a conductor, his choir.

Now Saltzman played people — the performers, staff, funders, media, volunteers, and dozens of others who came together each year to create a two-week extravaganza of more than 40 separate concerts, lectures, and workshops that each summer drew audiences of more than 30,000. Note by note, year by year, he’d cautiously nurtured the annual classical music event into what the Los Angeles Times called “a musical enterprise virtually without equal in America.” His skills had earned him many accolades, including leadership of the U.S. and international choral organizations.

Roycs Saltzman

Yet as the plane rose from the Eugene airport in January 1993, Saltzman knew he was approaching a critical juncture. The Festival had made its reputation through sharp performances of centuries-old masterworks. But for the 25th anniversary edition to be held in June 1994, Saltzman wanted to add a new dimension: an original piece by a major contemporary composer. And he had someone special in mind: a 56-year-old Estonian whom many regarded as the world’s preeminent active composer. His name was Arvo Pärt, and securing a new work from him might propel the Oregon Bach Festival into the first rank of classical music institutions. A successful premiere concert from so prominent a musician would encourage other composers to submit their new works to the OBF — and that, in turn, could make it an internationally recognized beacon of great new music as well as great old music.
The ’94 festival was special to the 65-year-old Saltzman for another reason: it would be his last as executive director; he’d just announced his retirement. If he could get Pärt, Saltzman have an opportunity that every musician craves: to go out with a grand finale.

Only one thing stood in the way: Arvo Pärt himself.

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